The members of JerkRag are having something of a shitty night.
It's an unseasonably rain-drenched evening in May, and the setup for their third-ever gig has been marred by endless difficulties, including missing equipment and soundboard snafus. They've spent weeks practicing in anticipation of rocking the rafters of Tempe nightclub Suite 301, but complications (coupled with the downpour that's kept a good chunk of their audience away) have left them irritated.
But aggravation turns into aggressiveness as they furiously kick off their gig with Stone Temple Pilots' "Sex Type Thing," causing the crowd of around 40 fans and friends in attendance to holler in approval.
Flicka's Baja Cantina
JerkRag, and Ronin Meyer are scheduled to perform on Saturday, June 28.
Drama like this is common to any new group taking baby steps into the local scene, but JerkRag is a different sort of band altogether. Hell, they aren't even a "real" band, at least not in the traditional sense. And while 28-year-old guitarist Evan Dally (a.k.a. "Brock McGraw") appears to be frenetically working a Fender Stratocaster and 26-year-old percussionist Brian "The Czern" Czerniak seemingly bangs on an electronic drum kit, neither device is an actual instrument. Moreover, the grinding grunge rhythms and thumping backbeat blasting through the club's amplifiers have been pre-recorded.
If you're suspecting a Milli Vanilli-style musical con job, an explanation is in order. Dally and Czerniak are using plastic game controllers shaped like their respective instruments, as JerkRag is (essentially) a Rock Band band. Their "performances" consist of expertly playing the blockbuster Xbox 360 and PlayStation rhythm game onstage at local nightspots while costumed in hair-metal sleaze-wear (complete with mullet wigs) and executing gonzo stage shenanigans.
In the grand spectrum of rock, JerkRag ranks somewhere between karaoke and tribute acts like the Atomic Punks. If virtual bands like Gorillaz create original music, but their members are embodied by digital avatars, then JerkRag is somewhat the opposite, a real-life representation of virtual rockers. It's life imitating art imitating life, with enough simulacra and hyper-reality to fill a Jean Baudrillard tome.
"Our main goal is to entertain the fuck out of people who've come to see us," Czerniak says. "I know it sounds funny because we're a band that isn't playing real instruments, but we're really good at the game and thought the idea of a wild Rock Band band would be funny."
For the uninitiated, the ultra-popular game (similar in design to the rival Guitar Hero series) simulates the rock 'n' roll experience, with up to four players matching the notes, beats, and vocals of classic and current pop/rock songs. As notes and lyrics scroll down and across the screen, wanna-be Eric Claptons use the "fret buttons" and "strum bar" on guitar-shaped controllers, while skinbeaters hit drum pads, and vocalists match the pitch on a USB microphone. Meanwhile, custom-designed rock star avatars perform for sold-out arenas in the background. If players miss their cues too often, the game grinds to a halt and the crowd boos loudly.
Since its release in November, Rock Band (like Guitar Hero before it) has become popular at dozens of Valley nightspots, with patrons playing along to chart busters like Rush's "Tom Sawyer" in a more social setting than their living rooms. These venues, however, have never seen a group of Rock Band players as outrageous as JerkRag.
The band formed for a Rock Band competition in March at Axis/Radius in Scottsdale. Shrum says they picked an outrageous-sounding name and bought heavy metal Halloween costumes. After winning $100 bar credit for best outfits, they kept the momentum going by becoming a pseudo-band, but with all the trappings of a real band, including gigs, T-shirts, and even a mockumentary. James Devine, the manager of Sandbar Mexican Grill in Scottsdale, was in attendance at the Axis/Radius night and booked JerkRag to perform a set in mid-April at his bar's weekly Rock Band night on Wednesdays, which nearly 100 people attended.
JerkRag tries to play flawlessly to avoid having the game stop during their gigs, and having to endure boos — both real and virtual. That's why, says 29-year-old Hogan Shrum (a.k.a. "Vincent Storm"), they rehearse up to 12 hours a week (in a garage, no less).
"That's more than some real bands practice," Shrum says. "We want to be able to play and perform without having to look at the screen at all."
That's not the only way JerkRag parallels real groups. There's also the oh-so-common malady of band infighting.
"We've gotten into some nasty fights in the garage while practicing," Shrum says. "I've been busy working lately and haven't had enough time to devote to practice, and I get shit for it in a major way."
All three members switch up instruments for variety, and play the game at the "expert" difficulty level (except for vocals, as easier settings permit more vocal flourishes), because it requires the most effort on their part and shows they're actually playing the game. There's a difference between them and some dude playing air guitar.
"We don't want people to hear notes and not see us hitting a button or moving our fingers, because it'll look cheesy or tacky," Czerniak says.
Currently, JerkRag's set lists are limited to the nearly 200 songs available for the game, but they're constantly expanding (with new downloadable songs available weekly from game creator Harmonix through the Xbox Live and PlayStation Network online services). Their repertoire stands to grow exponentially when Guitar Hero World Tour (the latest edition in its franchise) debuts in October.
The specs on the sequel indicate it'll be very Rock Band-like, adding the same instruments to the mix. Strum says they plan on incorporating both games (and the related peripherals and song libraries) into their shows.
"We'll change instruments during the middle of a set," he jokes. "Maybe we'll have a guitar tech, or a drum tech."
While mashing buttons in time to the beats of songs like Metallica's "Enter Sandman" won't exactly teach you how to play it on a real instrument, there are some instrument-playing skills that can be cribbed from the game, Hogan says.
"As a musician, it gives me more finger strength and control when I'm playing a real guitar. The only thing it doesn't teach you are specific chords and finger-placements on the neck," he says. "You can also get some fundamentals on the drums, since the controller is sorta like using a five-piece kit."
Since JerkRag's gotten some fundamentals from the game (and its members have some musical background), why not become a bona fide band? Czerniak says that they're already happy with the attention they've gotten thus far. Plus, they'd lose their hook.
"We get to act and live the role of rock stars," he says. "We're taking full advantage of this situation for as long as people give us their attention. I have the utmost respect for [Phoenix] bands like Vayden and Ronin Meyer, [but] what we are doing is something completely different."
And how do they respond to anyone calling them fake?
"Bullshit," Dally says. "To a degree, we're playing the music and propelling the song forward. The actual sound that's coming out from the drums is generated by our actions. When one of us is singing, it's just us."
Shrum explains further.
"Countless people have come up after we've performed and said, 'You guys weren't playing instruments,' and my response is, 'Did you have a good time? Did we rock it or what?'" he says. "Besides, we don't take ourselves too seriously."
Illustrating this, he says, will be the work-in-progress mockumentary, Almost Infamous: The Story of JerkRag, being created by local filmmaker Amy Newman (a former animator at Phoenix's now-defunct Fox Animation Studios). Shrum describes it as a quasi-improvisational, multi-part serial in the vein of This Is Spinal Tap (natch). They'll release the mockumentary on DVD and online. (One bit involves Czerniak trying out real instruments at Guitar Center, only to discover he can't shred as well as in Rock Band.)
"The plot is going to involve us as [our] characters taking ourselves completely too seriously," Shrum says. "There's so much opportunity with the world of music and the nuances of rock bands that we could make [fun of with] segments at shows, sort of like Flight of the Conchords, if you will, about a Rock Band band that's over the top and excessive."
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When confronted with the fact that VH1 (sister company of Harmonix) created a similar satire titled Rock Band Cometh: The Rock Band Band Story before the game's release, Czerniak denies ripping it off, saying the network's project was more of a parody of Behind the Music.
"People think everything we're doing is funny — the shows, the mockumentary, everything — so we're going to take JerkRag as far as we can go," Czerniak says.
And how far is that?
"Probably until the novelty wears off," he says.